Monday, 30 July 2018

Seeing the Changes 1352


More on Loughor vegetation with Traveller's joy (Clematis vitalba) coming into flower and Beech (Fagus sylvatica) mast being blown out of the trees.

Animals Behaving Badly- A Misnomer?


There are some fun sequences on this current BBC natural history series but I think the central premise is simply wrong (https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0bc6gdp). The animals appear to be being judged on human grounds being labelled as 'sneaky', 'thieving', 'two timing' et cetera but behaviour is how animals gain flexibility to effectively exploit what their environment throws up to them. Behaviour is mostly adaptive i.e. it is intended to give the animal an 'edge' over its competitors (with the toughest competitors generally being its own species as they have the same requirements) and other foes. The animals 'behaving badly' are, in my view, behaving successfully in ways that can be tagged with a negative label (what Psychologists, although I am a Biologist, call 'negative apperception').

Darwin's Galapagos Finches

The story of Darwin's Galapagos finches is a nice example of adaptive radiation (where a stock  diversifies into a number of species, exploiting different life-styles or foods). Genetic information has confirmed that the varied finches are, in deed, monophyletic (from the same stock) but there is still the interesting question of where the birds came from to colonise the volcanic islands as they emerged from the sea and cooled (https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/jul/30/origin-of-the-species-where-did-darwins-finches-come-from). It was generally assumed from they were blown across from Equador (the nearest mainland location) but some authorities have suggested origins as far as the Caribbean. Genetic techniques may well also answer this question. 

Sunday, 29 July 2018

Frog in the Throat?

Yet another unique Australian species threatened by biocontrol- gone-wrong (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/jul/28/australia-northern-quoll-endangered-cane-toad). Cane toads (with their toxic skin secretions defence) were imported from South America to deal with beetles that were causing problems in sugarcane plantations. Although this was not very successful, the toads thrived in this new location but their toxins are killing off any animal that eats them. This has happened with indigenous snakes who have responded, in some cases, by developing a gape too small for a toxic toad. Now the marsupial predator, the Northern quoll, is said to be decimated by their preference for toad (not in the hole). Scientists are attempting to wean them off this dietary item.

Saturday, 28 July 2018

Mann the Lifeboats!

I feel that even the opinion of a 'top US Climate Change scientist' is unlikely to alter the behaviour of sufficient numbers of people in the global warming debate (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/jul/27/extreme-global-weather-climate-change-michael-mann). Professor Michael Mann has opined that the current spate of extreme weather events over much of the globe are the 'face' of climate change (a new modelling study suggests that human contributions to the concentration of 'greenhouse gases' in the atmosphere make events, such as the recent heat wave in the UK, twice as likely). The trouble is that there are vested interests (coal and hydrocarbon extractors and pension fund managers) and people earning a living (miners and oil-workers) who will resist such a message (along with a general human desire by most to 'want it all'). In addition, politicians, generally seem incapable of considering anything 'economic' in anything more than the shortest of short-terms (so they don't want to do anything that would make them unpopular). The prognosis is not good even when we are 'having our noses rubbed in it'.

Thursday, 26 July 2018

Ocean's 87

Research has demonstrated that humans are doing a pretty thorough job of trashing the oceans as a mere 13% of this habitat (mainly in the really remote Pacific and near the poles) is currently undegraded in terms of its living systems being decimated(https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/jul/26/just-13-of-global-oceans-undamaged-by-humanity-research-reveals). Although we rely on our oceans only 5% has the protection of being designated a marine protection area (and people seem to be constantly complaining about any limitations placed on their exploitation of such habitats). We are not just talking here of floating/suspended plastics and must include other types of pollution;  over-fishing; extracting hydrocarbons and other minerals; marine transport and ocean acidification et cetera. I suspect, in the current climate, that the 13% will not remain undamaged.

Sense and Nonsense?

It does appear that the UK Government is finally seeing sense and will shortly be freeing GPs to prescribe cannabis-derived medicines (as is already in case in some other countries) for the control of certain types of epilepsy and other medical conditions (https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/jul/26/cannabis-based-medicines-get-green-light-as-uk-eases-rules). The former reluctance to do this appeared to be rooted in the doomed 'war against drugs'. It is also bizarre that nobody appears to have noted that it has long been possible to have heroin (illegal) co-existing with its derivative, morphine (legal and much used in pain relief). The chemicals concocted by plants (largely for their own protection against herbivores) are the basis of many pharmaceutical preparations but it has not always proved easy to understand the full range of their potential effects on diverse populations without considerable time elapsing.

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

Lancashire Hotpot

I must admit to being more than a little bemused by news that the UK Government, in spite of considerable local objections, have issued Cuadrilla the first licence to 'frack' shale deposits in rural Lancashire to extract trapped gas (https://www.theguardian.com/business/2018/jul/24/cuadrilla-gets-go-ahead-to-start-fracking-at-lancashire-site). I can appreciate how the energy from the gas appears to be 'free' but a) this will do little to reduce the release of 'greenhouse gases' as promised (and currently appearing somewhat urgent); b) people naturally tend to get upset that fracking might effect their homes, lands and environment (it can be carried out under their property without them having any power to block the activity) and c) not everyone is convinced that even responsible frackers (if there are any) can totally rule out detrimental changes to the water table, generation of local earthquakes et cetera. A costs versus benefits analysis doesn't suggest this is a good idea.

Edited and Modified?

The highest EU court has ruled that gene-edited organisms (using the CRISP-R technique) are essentially genetically-modified (GM) foods (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/jul/25/gene-editing-is-gm-europes-highest-court-rules). The basic difference, of course, is that whereas gene-editing is simply used to cut 'undesirable' genes out of genotypes, GM involves inserting gene sequences from other organisms (with attributes one wants to express) into the host. Presumably, the ruling only applies to 'food' and not to manipulations for medical purposes (an area the public in Europe seem much more relaxed about) but there really is a fine line between pork products and porcine organs modified for insertion into sick humans. The ruling makes a real difference as GM foods are nominally banned in the EU whereas the CRISP-R technique was a 'grey area'.

Monday, 23 July 2018

Seeing the Changes 1351


In Loughor, there was a nice display of Lords and ladies (Arum maculatum) in berry. In Bynea, a lepidopteran larva roamed the umbellifers.

Sunday, 22 July 2018

Oiling the Olives?


Considerable debate is brewing around Puglia in Italy where many long-established olive trees are threatened with destruction because they are within a specified distance of a tree infected with a destructive bacterium (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jul/22/italy-farmers-olive-trees-xylella-blight-cow-dung-puglia). The argument seems to revolve around one group advocating containment by destruction to prevent further spread and another group suggesting that most olive trees harbour xylella blight (which is only expressed when the tree is 'stressed') and the condition can be managed by the liberal application of copper sulphate and cow dung. It will be interesting to see how this plays out as their are academics supporting both sides. 

Shit Beer?

With the legalisation of cannabis in Canada, business folk have been quick to go one stage further than this 'energy drink' in the Netherlands and have produced a cannabis beer (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jul/22/it-hits-you-very-quickly-canada-brews-first-cannabis-beer). I am not really sure whether you need a simultaneous 'hit' with alcohol and cannabinoids! The development is certainly in contrast to the continuing UK debate about allowing medicinal cannabis preparations in cases like epilepsy.

Marine Animals to be Collateral Damage?

It has been claimed that new UK fishing regulations, in the event of Brexit, will remove some of the EU enforced by-catch protections for marine mammals and sea birds (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/jul/22/protection-dolphins-seabirds-weaker-brexit). Such organisms can become trapped and drowned in the nets of fishing boats but, it has been argued, that operating to minimise such events puts UK fisherfolk (who have be amongst the more effective protectors) at a commercial disadvantage. I personally feel that many people running fisheries (and their customers?) would feel unhappy about such a 'relaxation' of protections. I thought it was being argued that we were going to get 'greener' deals post-Brexit?

Too Much of a 'Good' Thing?

There has been a lot of excitement about the hottest UK summer since 1976 but people are starting to be concerned about the effects on agriculture across Europe (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/jul/20/crop-failure-and-bankruptcy-threaten-farmers-as-drought-grips-europe). This is not only threatening the livelihoods of farmers but also the availability and cost of food. Given other reports about the complete impending loss of mountain glaciers in Canada, multiple deaths by heatstroke in Japan and fires in the USA, it is a bit difficult not to be concerned. It has been suggested that many of these wide-spread conditions are due to a persistent migration of the jet stream. This can be taken to imply that it is too early to relate these 'extreme weather events' to climate change but a change in the location of the jet stream is a climate change event. I do think that there is a general lack of urgency in many policy-making circles. 

Saturday, 21 July 2018

Measuring the Measurers

An account, strongly suggests that the traditionally simplistic use of citations and journal impact scores is not an effective way of identifying future research 'stars' or rewarding people with promotions (https://www.theguardian.com/science/political-science/2018/jul/10/has-the-tide-turned-towards-responsible-metrics-in-research). Moves towards using metrics in a more sophisticated way, gathering more insights into genuine potential appear to be in the pipeline at a range of institutions..

Fruits of Their Labours

It has been suggested that gene editing techniques are on the verge of completely rewriting our ideas of the contents of the cornucopia. New fruits that seem about to appear include apples with red flesh, peach-flavoured strawberries and seedless tomatoes et cetera(https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/jul/19/weird-new-fruits-could-hit-aisles-soon-thanks-to-gene-editing). It could all get very confusing and I am not sure whether I would welcome such developments (being more than a little 'old-school', I like things to look and taste how I expect them to be). We could rapidly get to a situation where the fruits and vegetables wouldn't be recognisable to people in the present generation.

Carne Carneage?

An Oxford University study (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/jul/19/rising-global-meat-consumption-will-devastate-environment), pointing out that the amount of meat eaten per person has doubled on our planet in the past 50 years, has concluded that the rising global consumption of these food items will 'devastate' the environment. This is because the rearing of meat-producing animals (which would clearly increase) would greatly add to the production of 'greenhouse gases' (both carbon dioxide and methane). One of the difficulties is that meat has gained the status of a luxury item that many people have aspired to eat (sometimes earlier having lacked the purchasing power). It is, of course, not easy to reduce this trend by a) appealing to people to consider the environment in their food choices; b) pointing out the health risks of excessive meat consumption; c) stressing animal welfare issues and/or d) downgrading meat's luxury status.

Thursday, 19 July 2018

Poisoning the Air We Breathe?

The 25% increase in asthma deaths appears to be clearly related to chronic illegal levels of air pollution (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/jul/18/asthma-deaths-rise-25-amid-growing-air-pollution-crisis). This, of course, has a particular impact on people living and working near busy roads (car traffic is, by far, the major producer of noxious fumes). It is somewhat amazing to note that the government appears relaxed about a situation that is killing its own citizens (especially the young).

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Hard Cheese

Now, that is really the last (cheese) straw. It has been predicted that a likely consequence of any form of Brexit is going to be a major hike in the prices of cheeses combined with dramatically reduced (due to transport delays/customs) availabilities (https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/brexit-cheese-crisis-uk-leave-eu-burrata-comte-cheddar-mozzarella-manchego-italy-ireland-report-a7957071.html).

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Trophy Hunting Regarded in tghe US as Beneficial to Endangered Animals

The recent US rulings facilitating the imports of trophy hunting (on the basis that they  are beneficial to endangered animals) into that country do not entirely fill me with confidence, because hunters, rather than conservationists, seem to be dominating the decision-making (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/jul/17/trumps-wildlife-board-claims-trophy-hunting-saves-endangered-animals). They would say that wouldn't they?

Rocket Men

They talk about the importance of where to site a space port in Scotland, investment in technologies and the generation of 'jobs' (https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/jul/16/rocket-men-locals-divided-over-plans-for-uks-first-spaceport) but nobody ever seems to mention the potential impact of such activities on climate change! Even if people are prepared to pay for such activities, I am not too sure they should be encouraged to do so.

For Cosmetics or with a Curative Intention?


News that the Nuffield Ethics body has ruled that genetically modifying human babies can be admissible, in some cases, has predictably generated furious debate (https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/jul/17/genetically-modified-babies-given-go-ahead-by-uk-ethics-body). Some people seem to believe that the ruling opens the door to a new eugenics with 'designer babies' or, at the very least, a further marginalises people with inherited disorders who have not been treated. My view is that procedures that are carefully regulated ought to be allowed (even if the new trait is genetically transferable). Where one can offer hope to people who otherwise would suffer, it would be perverse in my view, to ban the technology on the grounds that it could be misused.

Big Bird Reintroduces Itself


It is interesting to read that, after a 400 year absence, the Common crane (the animal pictured is the related Red crowned crane) has reintroduced itself to locations in the Eastern UK (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/jul/17/common-cranes-here-to-stay-after-recolonising-eastern-england). They now appear to have a viable and growing population, already qualifying as Britain's tallest bird. I suspect that this self-introduction is more related to changes in human responses to the bird than any other factor.

No Shit!

It has been reported that US scientists have developed a mega-slippery spray for toilet pans that might well lead to the disappearance of...