Wednesday, 28 February 2018

The Whiff of Authoritarianism?


A study suggests that, having pronounced distaste for body odours and/or the smell of urine, is likely to indicate they also support  right wing views (https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/feb/28/hate-body-odour-youre-more-likely-to-have-rightwing-views). It is, of course, likely that such an odour aversion suggests that the individual will dislike humans in general but will particularly find the poor and the old not to their taste. It would be interesting to know what is their attitude to sport.

Air Pollution and the School Run


Apparently a majority of UK parents would like pollution exclusion zones to be enforced around their children's school (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/feb/26/most-uk-parents-back-air-pollution-exclusion-zones-around-schools). Air pollution is certainly a health hazard especially for people at an early stage of development and diverting traffic away from schools at peak times could be beneficial. It is difficult, however, to see how such a move would fit in with the ingrained 'school run' when many of the same folk congregate in cars to collect their offspring!

Monday, 26 February 2018

Signing On?


It seems remarkable but, apparently, many UK (and other?) children are entering primary school without the finger-strength or dexterity to hold and use a pencil (https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/feb/25/children-struggle-to-hold-pencils-due-to-too-much-tech-doctors-say). This is, seemingly, due to their utilising almost ubiquitous tablets in their early play. Unless corrected (this may require therapy), they will be unable to even sign their name. Writing skills are currently required in school but is their end nigh?

Toads!


More problems for Madagascar's unique animals (including the acclaimed and distinctive lemurs) with the arrival of a poisonous, camouflaged Asian toad (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/feb/24/madagascar-toxic-toads-lemurs-ecology-threat). The toad has impressive reproductive capabilities (there might be more than 20 million around the port where they seem to have been introduced only 10 years ago) and such organisms (remember the 'biocontrol' disaster of introducing the Cane toad to Australia to deal with beetles in sugar-cane fields!) pose a serious danger to the unique organisms of this island. They will out-compete some species and poison others who attempt to eat them.

Pull the Udder One!


I remember seeing a rather odd TV interview, before the referendum on leaving the EU, in which a little, old lady stated that she was voting 'leave' "So she could get her milk from the cow next door". Sadly, it has now been predicted that any post-Brexit US trade deal might well result in the UK having to take cheap milk from a much more distant source produced under lesser welfare standards (https://inews.co.uk/news/uk/shoppers-may-forced-buy-inferior-milk-america-post-brexit-trade-deal-us/). This might well have consequences for the already embattled UK diary industry.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Iranian Pit-stop Massacre?


Disturbing news that illegal poachers are killing around a million birds per year on a single conservation area (the Fereydunkenar lagoon) in Iran (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/feb/25/one-million-birds-killed-illegally-iran-wetland-wildlife-site). The lagoon and 2 nearby waterbodies are used by a variety of (often endangered) bird species, as 're-fuelling' stops, in their energetically-demanding migration flights. It seems that the well-armed poachers operate with relative impunity to bring their 'catches' to market. Relatively safe 'stop-overs' are necessary for the continued existence of bird species that migrate over long distances.

Strike Out!


Mass mortality events or MMEs (where substantial numbers of a species die in a very short time), certainly may be factors threatening the extinctions of animals, ranging from fruit bats in Australia; Saiga antelopes in Kazakhstan; corals in many parts of the world to sardines in our seas (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/feb/25/mass-mortality-events-animal-conservation-climate-change). MMEs appear to be currently more common (or perhaps better documented?) and there have been tentative attempts to link their occurrence to climate change. Whilst it is somewhat 'dodgy' to attempt to associate an individual meteorological event (a cold snap, a heat-wave or a hurricane) to a MME, there is little doubt that climate change will pose challenges for some species and, failure to cope,  may underpin some of the simultaneous fatal consequences.

Saturday, 24 February 2018

Enough to Make You Turn Veggie?


It's somewhat worrying to read that nearly two thirds of meat plants in England, Northern Ireland and Wales have been in breach of safety regulations following Food Safety Agency inspections (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/feb/23/fear-of-uk-meat-scandal-as-data-shows-hygiene-breaches-at-most-plants). This amounts to 16 major failings (a mixture of temperature control problems, potential cross-contamination and traceability issues) a week. This might mean that we have to worry about the safety of 'fresh' meat products and we still can't be certain that the 'beef' isn't horse flesh. Reportedly, four different UK companies have now withdrawn meat they would normally be supplying to pub and restaurant chains. It is useful that the breaches are being identified (rather than remaining hidden) but some authorities have suggested that the financial support of food safety inspections is under considerable pressure in the UK. Perhaps chlorine-washed chicken and hormonally-treated beef are not the only areas of concern for British meat-eaters?

Friday, 23 February 2018

Worldwide Swap Shop?


There has been on interesting development in the Seychelles where $22m of national debt (largely owed to European countries) has been exchanged by The Nature Conservancy (who purchased the debt at a 'knock-down' price) for the creation of 2 enormous additional marine parks (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/feb/22/debt-for-dolphins-seychelles-create-huge-new-marine-parks-in-world-first-finance-scheme). The corals in the area had been suffering from bleaching and there was growing evidence of over-fishing endangering stocks of marine animals (including dolphins). Basically, 15% of the Seychelles waters are to become protected marine parks with 7,400,000 hectare area around Aldabra and a 13,400,000 hectare location around Mahe. This seems to be a win-win situation for most folk as the planet gets important conservation areas, the locals can forget servicing the debt as well as getting improvements that might well aid tourism and the Europeans get some of their money back. The only groups that seem worried about the development are people with livelihoods in fishing (but experience suggests the parks could restock the fish in accessible areas). It actually seems good news to me and might well be fruitfully copied elsewhere!

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Kept on Ice


Scientists from the British Antarctic Survey are apparently rushing to the site of the calving of the A68 iceberg to examine an ecosystem that has been hidden under the ice for more than 120,000 years (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/feb/20/scientists-race-to-explore-antarctic-marine-life-revealed-by-giant-iceberg). The iceberg is reportedly 4 times the size of London and is detaching from the Larsen C ice shelf. It will be interesting to see what organisms have managed to live (and evolve?) in such a hostile environment but the magnitude of changes in sea ice in the Antarctic is somewhat worrying.

Demented Drinkers?


It is not unreasonable to suspect that there might well be a strong impact of heavy alcohol ingestion on the risk of developing vascular dementia and/or Alzheimer's disease. A study, based on a French national hospital database, collected between 2008 and 2013, on more than a million patients diagnosed with dementia (https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/feb/20/chronic-heavy-drinking-leads-to-serious-risk-of-dementia-study-warns) has suggested that more than one third of the 50+k patients with early onset dementia were heavy drinkers. This is, of course, a correlation rather than absolutely establishing causation but the connection might even be stronger, as getting accurate levels of alcohol ingestion from people is notoriously difficult (family members as well as principals are likely to routinely under-report alcohol intake). Sadly, the article concludes a) that periods of abstinence do not repair the neural damage induced by heavy drinking and b) there may be no real 'safe' level of alcohol intake.

Seeing the Changes 1252


A male Early moth (Theria primaria) made an appearance in Loughor.

Monday, 19 February 2018

Irritatingly Resilient Old Fogies


'Superagers' are old folk who show remarkably preserved cognitive functions when in their 80s and older (https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/feb/19/scientists-unravel-secrets-of-superagers). Such individuals cope well with the stresses of life and are generally more extrovert and less neurotic than the general population. It is only a correlation at the present time, but a US post-mortem study of the brains of 10 superagers has revealed that this organ has a much higher proportion of special Von Economo neurons (also found in the brains of long-lived mammals like the elephant) than their contemporaries (or even much younger people). This is especially so in an area, called the anterior cingulate, that is implicated in attention and working memory. Their cognitive thinning rate is also remarkably reduced. Other studies suggest that superagers can evidence protein plaque in their brains without accompanying dementia and even smoke and drink without obvious negative consequences. It seems that such folk 'got lucky' in genetic roulette.   

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Which Half and Who Will Decide?


An article in the UK press asks the bold question "should we give up half the planet to other species?" (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/feb/18/should-we-give-half-planet-earth-wildlife-nature-reserve). Certainly, anthropogenic effects are having catastrophic effects on wildlife throughout the entire globe and the idea of 'giving up' 50% of the Earth to become a gigantic nature reserve is superficially attractive. Presumably, we are talking here about half of the planet's entire surface, as both terrestrial and marine habitats are in need of some TLC. It might be superficially a nice idea to people currently living a fairly comfortable and sheltered existence but I can't see the suggestion having any real currency because a) it would require the approval and cooperation (with compensation?) of all the peoples on the planet; b) where the protected (human-free?) areas would be located would have to be decided (by experts?); c) humans and animals are unlikely to stay in 'their' locations (it doesn't even work for current small scale reserves); d) people currently exploit animals and plants for gain in many ways (eating them, using them as 'medicines', providing decoration and generating 'pets) and e) we already know that human influences (e.g. plastics and  'greenhouse gases') spread over the entire planet from current concentrations of our species. It looks to me as if we are stuck with the current mechanisms for conservation with all their inherent inadequacies and lack of scope!

Friday, 16 February 2018

Cross My Palm Oil With Silver?


Very disturbing news of a dramatic decline in the numbers of Borneo Orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus) over  the last 16 years with a decline of circa 150,000 animals (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/feb/15/dramatic-decline-in-borneos-orangutan-population-as-150000-lost-in-16-years). The decimation of this very arboreal, rainforest ape seem to be largely consequences of hunting (for bush-meat or to kill the mother inorder to take any young for sale as 'pets') and habitat loss (basically by forest clearance to convert areas to palm oil or acacia plantations). Unsurprisingly, these apes are reported to be often killed by farm workers when they 'stray' on to agricultural land. You apparently even get hunting of these beasts in one part of the country and attempted conservation nearby. It is certainly possible that the losses are an under-estimate as the figures include a large element presumed from known habitat loss rather than being based on actual carcasses.

Seeing the Changes 1251




Returning to the topic of seasonally early flowerings. Red valerian (Centranthus ruber) and Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) were in flower in Mumbles and Bynea, respectively.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

The Sound of Silence


Another example of speedy evolution? It has been reported that crickets, on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, have lost the sound production structures carried on their wings that are normally used to generate the song to attract a mate (https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/feb/14/evolution-in-real-time-silent-crickets-still-singing-for-a-mate). These crickets still make the energetic movements that would normally result in courtship song but apparently benefit in the resulting silence by failing to attract  parasitic flies that would normally kill them. It is highly likely that the movements will rapidly disappear as well unless they signal mating vigour to females in the near vicinity.

Anty (Re) Natal


There is an interesting account of the treatment of wounded Matabele ants (Megaponera analis) from  the Ivory Coast by their nest-mates, after raids on termite mounds to feed on these insects (https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/feb/14/nursing-in-nature-matabele-ants-observed-treating-injured-comrades). It appears that only potentially viable, but wounded ants, produce odours ('pheromones') that elicit retrieval by their comrades and, once located, are capable of adopting a posture facilitating their being carried back to the nest. There, they are cleaned (and possibly treated with antibiotics?) enabling around 80% of them to recover to fight again. This simple system essentially mirrors triage and paramedic treatment as practised by our own species.

Birder's Bonus 178


Awful weather on Loughor estuary, so 100+ waders plus accompanying Lapwings (Vanellus vanellus) retired to the neighbouring campsite.

Monday, 12 February 2018

Brainslip


After the speculation about the origins of Cheddar man, a nice topical look at what is currently known (or thought to be the case) about primate and human evolution has been made available (https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/feb/12/tracing-the-tangled-tracks-of-humankinds-evolutionary-journey). One of the more striking observations is that the average size of the modern human's brain has reduced by some 5-10% over the last 200,000 years. The brain is a greedy organ, consuming around 20% of our energy and 'domestication' (our domesticated animals have smaller brains than their wild progenitors) may mean that current humans can get by with smaller brains than our ancestors (who had more to worry about or to deal with?). Pretty obviously, babies with smaller heads are also less likely to lead to problems at parturition (so this factor could have direct selection value).

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Seeing the Changes 1250


An chorus of Spring crocus (Crocus albiflorus) appeared in Loughor.

Saturday, 10 February 2018

The Dangers of Environmental Activism?


Reports of the death of American Esmond Bradley Martin, a campaigner against elephant poaching, as a result of stabbing in his Nairobi home (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/feb/05/leading-ivory-trade-investigator-killed-in-kenya) is, I am afraid, only the latest apparent example of the dangers of working in such areas. Many campaigners in many areas of the world have become targets when their activities have threatened the profits of overtly and covertly criminal groups. 

Will Myth Busting Actually Work?


An interesting paper in Environmental Research Letters by Cook, Ellerton and Kinkead examines 42 climate change myths and concludes that all involve fallacious reasoning (iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/aaa49f/meta). They conclude that people can be educated to recognise the intellectual flaws in the reasoning and this may well enable progress to be made in meeting the challenges raised by human-assisted climate change. I am not so sure. It seems to me a) that climate change denial is far better-funded and appeals to lazy thinking; b) some influential people are probably fully aware of the fallacies but choose to ignore them for economic or political reasons and c) there is good evidence that sections of populations are very resistant to changing their views by exposure to 'facts'.

A Tiger in the Tank?


Disturbing news that a sedated tiger cub was reportedly posted in a plastic box from one part of Mexico to another (https://nypost.com/2018/02/08/someone-tried-to-express-mail-a-tiger-cub/). Tigers are apparently status pets in parts of that country. The cub was discovered by a sniffer dog and survived being only somewhat dehydrated but this technique is said to be used by many people attempting to make money from endangered animals. Rare tortoises have been dispatched en masse by mail often with fatal consequences.

Friday, 9 February 2018

Plastic Ice?


Norwegians are becoming concerned about the 'huge concentrations' of microscopic plastic waste in their Arctic sea ice and its potential effects on fish stocks (www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-42947155). Melting a litre of sea ice apparently reveals an average of more than 200 small pieces of plastic that can be ingested by marine organisms.They point out that, as plastics float, they are incorporated in the sea ice as the surface layers freeze. This really is the Anthropocene era!

Where's the Beef (From)?


All this speculation about new trading possibilities generates some interesting insights. It has been revealed, for example, that US beef originates from cattle dosed with 5 times as much antibiotic medicine as is allowable in the UK (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/feb/08/huge-levels-of-antibiotic-use-in-us-farming-revealed). These drugs are used by farmers to stimulate growth (and profits) rather than to counter disease (and some US farmers additionally use bovine somatotrophic [growth] hormone, which is also outlawed in Europe). Overuse of antibiotics in farming is one of the practises that is leading to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, perhaps returning medicine to a pre-antibiotic era, where infection of a minor cut could lead to death. Unfortunately, banning US beef products in Europe (even if possible) will not keep any evolving dangerous bacterial strains on the other side of the Atlantic!

Hard Cheese!


There has been an interesting topical re-analysis (https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/feb/07/first-modern-britons-dark-black-skin-cheddar-man-dna-analysis-reveals) on the remains of Cheddar man, discovered in Gough's cave more than 100 years ago. The remains have been dated as being some 10,000 years old, making them the oldest Homo sapiens remains found, thus far, in the UK (presumably representing humans arriving after the last ice-age). Part of the study involved drilling into the skull to obtain some of the individual's DNA. When analysed, it suggested that the man had dark-black skin, brunette curly hair and blue eyes, leading to speculation that he was from a group migrating from the Middle East. Having a dark complexion would make it difficult for individuals to synthesise sufficient vitamin D following radiation of their skin by sunlight, perhaps accounting for a later paling of the skin in this location.

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Bear-faced


I don't think we really had to have a study involving fitting Polar bears with cameras on their collars to predict that the dramatic decline in Arctic sea ice would create real problems for these animals (https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2018/02/polar-bears-starve-melting-sea-ice-global-warming-study-beaufort-sea-environment/). The loss of sea ice results in reduced a) locations where the bears can ambush seals coming up to breathe and b) areas where the bears can hunt free from interference by their own species (all bear species require very substantial home ranges).

Processing Away Our Health?


Somewhat disturbing reports that now more than half the food purchased for family consumption in the UK is made from 'ultra-processed' ingredients (https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/feb/02/ultra-processed-products-now-half-of-all-uk-family-food-purchases). This puts the British in top spot in Europe, as eaters of products devised by 'food technologists', using ingredients (particularly salt and sugars) that encourage greater and greater consumption (and greater and greater profits for their companies). I suspect that many people use these foods because a) they they believe claims or implications that they can be nutritious and b) have been convinced that working from fresh ingredients takes too much time (difficult for people with fraught life-styles). It is not too far a leap, however, to think that this dependence of ultra-processed materials can be implicated in the obesity epidemic currently seen in the UK with its associated health risks (including type 2 diabetes, stroke and cardio-vascular disease). 

Bearly Adequate?

The Bristol zoo proposal to put both Brown bears and wolves into an area of ancient British woodland for the first time in hundreds of ye...