Tuesday, 30 June 2020

Slap on the Greenwash?


Most environmental groups appear to be relatively unimpressed by the UK Government's 'Rooseveldtian' scheme to 'build, build, build' its way to economic recovery (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jun/30/environmental-experts-dismayed-by-details-of-johnsons-new-deal). They argue that we will have few opportunities to do something serious about climate change and that most of the announced 'wheezes' seem firmly rooted in an older carbon-based approach to living and working. Perhaps the most worrisome aspect of 'the plan', is the lack of any reference to the manifesto 'promise' (was it only December?) to spend a substantial amount of money improving the insulation standards of UK properties. Our housing standards are amongst the worst in the developed world and we waste huge amounts of energy (and money)  heating our buildings. Rectifying this situation really would be a sign of green intent (in a way that planting a few trees- even if they materialise- would not). 

Shadow Over the 'Sunshine Vitamin'


Vitamin D (the so-called 'sunshine vitamin'), like all these dietary factors, is generally obtained from our food.  It is, however, unusually also manufactured under bare skin (without clothes, lots of sun protection or copious make-up) when stimulated by the UV part of sunshine (this would make it a hormone as well as a vitamin). It has been evident, for some time, that BME folk appear more susceptible to Covid-19 and often suffer a worse infection, than paler-skinned counterparts. The fact that people with darker-pigmented skins produce less Vitamin D in the (relatively) weak sunshine of the UK, seems a prime reason for suggesting that this cheap supplement could offer protection in the pandemic. However, a thorough evaluation by NICE seems to have now established that a daily dose of Vitamin D will not protect people from this virus (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/29/no-evidence-that-taking-vitamin-d-prevents-coronavirus-say-experts). This also adds weight to the view that socio-economic/career-related factors (that increase risk) rather than 'biology' account for the differing mortality rates in BME and other ethnic groups. It's how we live (or are forced to live) that determines most of this difference rather than our genes. Vitamin D supplementation might have limited utility in people who have to remain house or institution-bound in lockdown but it's no 'magic bullet'.

Seeing the Changes 1469



In Loughor, an impressive parasol toadstool thanked the rain and all the leaves of the Horse chestnuts were infested with miners.

Monday, 29 June 2020

Silent Spreaders

 
In the early days of Covid-19's arrival in Europe, some scientists suggested (on the basis of their experiences with testing at a German motor manufacturers with foreign visitors from China), that infected people could spread the disease but be asymptomatic. Their view was, however, generally initially dismissed as it didn't fit with their critic's understanding of what happened in cases of Sars (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/27/world/europe/coronavirus-spread-asymptomatic.html?campaign_id=2&emc=edit_th_20200628 ). This now appears to be a missed opportunity, as the virus had almost 2 months to travel world-wide, before asymptomatic spreading was recognised. With any new disease, we clearly have to attempt to use comparable conditions to guide our thinking. We should not, however, lose sight of the fact that any new disease may have its own unique characteristics. So, perhaps suggestions should not be dismissed before the possibilities have been fully trialled?

Culling Our Way to Conservation?


It is certainly a 'hot' tropic and it's always nice to see the words of one of your ex-supervised students (in this case Carl Jones) cited, but there are pros and cons when one considers using culling of one species to conserve another (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jun/28/should-we-cull-one-species-to-save-another-huge-mice-killing-birds-gough-island). It is certainly true that humans to some extent 'play God' by deciding which species to favour. We do have a strong tendency to go for species (especially birds, mammals and butterflies) that humans appreciate (and might well pay money to conserve). Often, the choices are reasonable but they can be misguided (e.g. directing cash to conserving animals in a country near the extremes of its range, when it is common elsewhere). All species are programmed to reproduce themselves (using whatever means are available) and this also applies to the 'problematic' (again our choice) candidates for culling. And, yes, culling (especially as conducted in remote locations, like Gough Island) will cause animal suffering. Having said all that, there is also no doubt that many of the problems for endangered species (especially island populations) have been caused by human activity and/or the introduction (deliberate or otherwise) of alien species. Culling may be all that is possible unless we want to see a pretty standard fauna in most locations. I suspect that most agencies know this, even if some of them pretend not to favour culling for PR reasons. 

Cannibal Rats?


Funny how what is quite normal behaviour gets relabelled when people want to make a story (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/29/summer-of-the-cannibal-rats-hungry-aggressive-highly-fertile-and-coming-to-our-homes). It is hardly remarkable that, in Covid-19 lockdown, UK rats have been redirected by their stomachs away from restaurants and beauty spots (closed and unsupplied with the typical human waste) to our homes and gardens (suddenly better supplied with edibles). It is also unremarkable that we humans (many of us having been forced to remain local for extended periods of time) have noticed them more. This, of course, has led to more call-outs to pest control agencies (and stories of rats biting pensioners on their bums as they sit on the toilet or demolishing the seating in a garaged camper van). The description 'cannibal rats' is a bit anthropomorphic. Rats have never turned their noses up at food, even when its the babies of another rat, a stranger or even a mouse. And, yes, mother rats will 'recycle' their babies rather than starve as there may be a chance to breed some other day. The description 'aggressive' is also a bit anthropomorphic. Rats will leap at and attempt to bite, humans or cats but this is essentially a defensive response against something that is bigger and perceived as being more dangerous. They are also territorial and will attack stranger rats who are not members of their colony. Unremarkably, hungry rats will also be more visible as they are forced to take more chances in their unceasing search for food. Being highly fertile (hardly a new observation) is one of the ways that rats deal with a hostile world, inflicting many mortalities on their species. Go Ratty!

Sunday, 28 June 2020

Seeing the Changes 1468



More flowers. Lady's bedstraw (Galium verum) blooming in Penclacwydd and Hairy St John's wort (Hypericum hirsutum) in Bynea.

Caught Short?


I couldn't agree more with the observation that the Covid-19 lockdown has dramatically high-lighted the shameful lack of public toilets in the UK (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jun/27/britain-public-toilets-coronavirus-private-interests). Lots of people (the elderly, people with medical conditions, runners, parents with babies and children et cetera) need easy access to get around in towns and cities. However, central government's starving of council finances (and the fact that toilets are not a statutory requirement), means that they have disappeared or been closed in many places. Apps to find the nearest functional facility (preferably without charges) are all very well, but are only of real use if the locations are within easy walking distance (and don't get me started on provision for the mobility impaired!). The article points out that one reason why there has not thus far been a bigger outcry about this lack of provision, is that many cafes, pubs and shops have toilets. These have been used as a 'bargaining chip' to get customers in. The whole thing falls down when many of these commercial operations are closed to reduce Covid-19 transmission. I thought we all were supposed to be vigorously washing our hands on a regular basis? So, I would give all councils more cash and make maintained toilet  provision a requirement. It's only civilised.

You Are What They Let You Eat?


Even if we cannot be absolutely certain that like is being compared with like, the claim that 16% of Americans are annually made ill by the food they eat compared with only 3.5% of people in the UK is both striking and concerning (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jun/28/we-are-what-we-eat-so-were-right-not-to-trust-what-goes-into-american-food). Food production in the USA is clearly much more driven by cost/profits than any other consideration (animal welfare or human health). There also seems little doubt that, if the UK desires a trade deal with the US, it will come under enormous pressure (the Agricultural sector in America is extremely politically powerful) to accept (perhaps without labelling about origins) a variety of foods that are currently banned (on welfare grounds or by using problematic chemical treatments) by the EU. This would mean (as we couldn't guarantee common standards) that UK farmers would face the double whammy, of being undercut by US producers and having export restrictions imposed by Brussels. The UK might find it harder and more expensive to import fruit and vegetables (we get most of these from Europe), whilst being inundated with cheap meat (from the USA). It has already been noted that one thing that we can do to, at least partially, counter climate change is to change our diets to include less meat. The financial pressures of a US deal would clearly push things in the opposite direction. Given the impact of American food on illness, no wonder that country would also like part of the NHS action?     

Saturday, 27 June 2020

An Unequal Fight for the Amazon Rainforest?

There is slightly good news with an account of the activities of CEFU (the Experimental Active Forest Centre) that was set up in 2016 to culture native Amazon trees like the Cumaru (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jun/27/either-we-change-or-we-die-the-radical-farming-project-in-the-amazon). Without these trees, there is no future possibility of reconstituting the forest,which has been under multiple threats for years The forest is now being cut and burned at record rates, largely for grazing cattle or growing soya bean crops to feed to the cows. This is, however, a very unequal contest as it is much easier (and quicker) to destroy sections of the forest, than it is to get the trees to grow again. There is also much more financial support for clearance and many more people doing it (in many cases illegally). The current Brazilian government can hardly be described as supportive of either the rainforest or the indigenous people to live in it.

Covid-19 Effects on the Brain?


The numbers are tiny but there appears to be an urgent need to fully evaluate the suggestion that a Covid-19 infection can have lasting effects on the brain in some patients (https://www.theguardian.com/science/2020/jun/25/doctors-find-brain-issues-linked-to-covid-19-patients-study). The viral infection has been linked to some cases of stroke and to psychoses. This may be a consequence of the effects of the virus on the circulatory system supplying the brain in some patients.These long-lasting effects of infection could be a serious health problem for sub-populations of folk.

Cuckoo Clocks Up the Miles


People have been amazed by the travels of Onon, the Cuckoo, who has been tracked making a 216,000 km round trip from Mongolia to South Africa and back whilst the world was in Covid-19 lockdown (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jun/26/cloud-cuckoo-land-how-one-birds-epic-migration-stunned-scientists-onon-aoe). This is a record for a land-based bird species (as distinct from the terns that were lauded for their travels) and it shows us how much we have to learn about migrations in what we thought were well-documented species.

Friday, 26 June 2020

All You Wanted to Know About Covid-19 Immunology but Were Afraid to Ask


Dr Zania Stamataki, a viral immunologist, has provided a useful overview of our growing but, as yet imperfect, understanding of the serological (blood) responses to a Sars CoV-2 infection (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jun/25/viral-immunologist-antibody-tests-covid-19-immuity-coronavirus). She points out that blood tests (easy to take) can vary in accuracy (infections with other coronaviruses, such as the common cold, can produce false positives). Serological tests tell us, however, more about the incidence and transmission of the virus than do PCR screenings.  These genetic tests detect the actual virus but require much greater sampling skill (relying on nose and throat swabs). Dr Stamataki notes that it is difficult to detect antibodies in the bloods of newly infected people but that most patients develop these protective proteins in 1-3 weeks. She also points out that these tests can warn us about high risk groups. For example, one hospital study showed that a higher percentage of (less protected) housekeeping staff developed an infection than was seen in (more protected) staff working in intensive care. Dr Stamataki also illustrates what we are learning about the roles of the B cells (that produce antibodies) and the T cells (that can, for example, destroy infected cells) in Sars CoV-2 infections. In the case of the B cells, we don't know yet how long antibody protection lasts, whether booster doses of vaccine might be required or even whether we will need new vaccines as the virus mutates. T cell responses are evident in most Covid-19 patients, even when there are no detectable antibodies in their blood. There is also a possibility that T cell memory of Sars CoV-2 infections lasts longer antibody memory. Studies appear to show that asymptomatic (without symptoms ) and presymptomatic (at the very start of an infection) can be highly contagious. Waiting for symptoms can be leaving it too late but there might be early T cell indicators of infection. Dr Stamataki appears optimistic about the early vaccine studies suggesting that immunological memory is a possibility. The account, however, emphasises that we are having to learn a lot about the body's response to this novel (for humans) virus under very difficult circumstances.  

Baked Arctic


There is an interesting opinion piece on responses to the Arctic heatwave (with temperatures reaching 38 degrees Celsius and record reductions in the amount of sea ice) by Dr Tamsin Edwards (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jun/25/arctic-heatwave-38c-siberia-science). She points out that there is more than twice the amount of carbon in the permafrost, as in the atmosphere (some of which is being released, along with methane, in the thawing process). Yet, she councils, that we need a response somewhere between the 'shock-horror, we are all doomed!' and 'it's only weather' that prevail in the literature. Dr Edwards not unreasonably points out that, although the carbon stored in permafrost and wetlands is estimated (I stress 'estimated') to add about 100 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere this century, human activity currently contributes 40 billion tonnes per year. What this actually means is that, every tonne of carbon dioxide released by the permafrost, requires that we humans need generate one tonne fewer, if we are to stand any chance of getting to zero emissions by 2050. We have, to put it simply, move to a world-wide carbon-free economy much more quickly. Remember, that 2050 was suggested to be target to limit global warming to a 'safe' (again 'estimated') 1.5 degrees Celsius. Although I am somewhat reassured by her reasoning, there are too many variables (and unknowns) for my liking. 

Thursday, 25 June 2020

Cold Turkey on Plastics


Many people in the UK carefully sort out their waste and assume they are doing their bit for the environment. More of our plastic waste, however, now goes to Turkey than to any other country in spite of experts claiming that that location has insufficient capacity to cope with its own generated material (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-53181948/why-is-uk-recycling-being-dumped-by-turkish-roadsides). The inevitable result is that some of the people who accept payments for dealing with the plastic waste, dump it by Turkish roadsides and burn it. Burning plastic can be highly toxic as well as adding to the 'greenhouse gas' production which drives climate change. This kind of story also provides strong disincentives for people in the UK to take recycling seriously. It would be much better if the UK dealt with all its own plastic waste (of all types), without dumping it on other countries. That would cut out both transport emissions and 'rogue recycling'. We produced it; we should deal with it!

Adelie Penguins Appear to Thrive Off-piste


Somewhat counter-intuitively, a Japanese researcher has reportedly demonstrated that Adelie penguins appear to benefit from the current melting of sea ice around Antarctica (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jun/24/adelie-penguins-could-thrive-as-result-of-sea-ice-melting). This small penguin mainly feeds on krill and squid, so reductions in the sea ice make its foraging activity more efficient. Foraging is, of course key to the penguin's breeding and feeding their developing chicks. I strongly suspect that reducing the ice has a detrimental effect on survival in the larger species of penguin (especially the Emperor).

Rhesusitation?


Another strange animal consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic is evident in reports from 13th Century Lopburi in Thailand (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/24/we-live-in-a-cage-residents-hide-as-macaque-gangs-take-over-thai-city). Tourists used to be attracted to the town to take selfies whilst feeding bananas to troops of feral Rhesus macaques. The virtual elimination of tourism has meant that the monkeys are no longer getting this food (and the residents can't make money selling it to visitors). The locals now claim to be over-run by these primates (their population doubled to around 6000 in the last 3 years). There is fighting (over food) in the streets and the smell of excrement is overpowering. Somewhat oddly, some people try to placate the macaques by giving them junk food and fizzy drinks (presumably they haven't heard about the negative effects of these items on the behaviour of some human children). There is a capture and sterilisation programme in place to try to reduce the size of the problem.

Seeing the Changes 1467









Some of the specimens from last night's moth trap in Loughor. Micros included Yponomeuta cagnagella, a Snout moth, Myelois cribella, Eurrhypara coronata and Agapeta humana. Macros included Willow beauty (Peribatoides rhomboidaria), Double square spot (Xestia triangulum) and Buff arches (Habrosyne pyritoides).

Beeicide



There is a powerful illustration of just what havoc an alien introduction can quickly cause, with an account of how bee keepers in North America and Canada are struggling to protect their Honey bee hives from Asian giant hornets (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jun/25/hornets-race-to-protect-north-americas-honeybees-from-giant-invader-aoe). Nobody really knows how these exotic insects have been introduced to the North American continent (many imports that might be harbouring insects are treated with carbon dioxide). The hornets have huge mandibles and can decapitate bees. When they locate a hive, they can organise a raiding party that can take place several days later. This type of attack can largely destroy colonies as they feed on the helpless bee larvae in their cells. People protecting the honey bee  have been using lots of techniques (including radio-tracking) to locate and destroy hornet colonies (a process that can be painful). Apparently, Japanese Honey bees can deal with hornet invaders by smothering them with their bodies (so they over-heat and die) but their North American counterparts have not developed a counter strategy..  

Seeing the Changes 1466





Some flower colour variants. A pink Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) at Penclacwydd. A possible white Self-heal (Prunella vulgaris) and a white Great willowherb (Epilobium hirsutum) both in Loughor. The Red admirals (Vanessa atalanta) were about from Bynea to Loughor.

Wednesday, 24 June 2020

Seeing the Changes 1465



A few more flowers in Bynea. Small fleabane (Pulicaria vulgaris) and Betony (Stachys officinalis) in bloom.

Meaty, Beaty and Full of Bounce?


We have known for more than a month that meat processing plants are liable to become a focus for Covid-19 transmission. At one stage, such plants accounted for roughly half of all new infections in the USA and there was even a major outbreak at a processing factory in Anglesey (Wales). The most obvious features of such industries, where animals are slaughtered and the meats packaged, are a) people working closely together (perhaps with a somewhat cavalier attitude to distancing and cleanliness?) and b) masses of cold, damp surfaces on which the virus can persist. Given this knowledge, it is all the more surprising that there has been a major rekindling of the pandemic in Gutersloh, Germany just when the country was coming out of lockdown (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/22/meat-plant-must-be-held-to-account-covid-19-outbreak-germany). More than 1,500 workers appear to have been infected at what is Europe's largest meat packaging plant. We really have to learn a bit quicker and put very stringent (and well 'policed') requirements into such establishments.

Tuesday, 23 June 2020

Seeing the Changes 1464









Around Loughor estuary, a fly buzzed over stagnant water. Mountain ash (Sorbus acuparia) was in berry and Great bindweed (Calystegia silvatica) was in trumpet. A Ringlet butterfly (Aphantopus hyperantus) variously probed faeces and basked. A Small skipper (Thymelicus flavus) and a Meadow brown (Maniola jurtina) enjoyed the sunshine.

Green Shoots?

It's an interesting indication but I think that it is 'pushing it' to claim that there is measurable popular support for a 'green recovery' to follow the Covid-19 lockdown (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jun/23/uk-public-supports-green-recovery-from-coronavirus-crisis). The actual 'majority' favouring a continuation of home working (where possible) and big changes to transport is actually based on the opinions of a panel of 108 members (the Climate Assembly UK) 'chosen to be representative of the UK population'. Being 'representative' seems to be an aspiration rather than an established fact. All 108 members must have been willing to devote their time to the project (how many people turned down invitations?). Having a small group, does facilitate effective dialogue but it also means that each person has an almost 1% input to the group's opinion. I personally would, in deed, like the government to try to maximise our response to climate change (a looming challenge) as they reboot the economy. I suspect, however, that there is likely to be more resistance (perhaps media-led?) to some of the needed changes than is implied by this article. All you need is for substantial minorities to refuse to go along with a consensus, for it to fall apart. 

Durian Durian


Shock-horror. There are reports of a package of evil-smelling durian fruit in a Post Office in Schweinfurt, Bavaria, Germany causing panic (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/23/smelly-durian-fruit-evacuation-bavarian-post-office). These spiny, pear-shaped fruit are revered as delicacies in Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand but they emit a very pungent odour. The postal workers had no idea what they were dealing with and 6 were actually admitted to hospital before the nature of the 'problem' was revealed.

Seeing the Changes 1463


By the Loughor estuary at Bynea, Common sea-lavender (Limonium vulgare) and Marsh mallow (Althaea officinalis) were in bloom.

Monday, 22 June 2020

A-Not OK?



Although its genesis is more scientifically traditional than the DNA testing company who also claimed that people with a type 'O' blood group were more resistant to severe infection by Covid-19 than other ABO blood groups (https://news.cgtn.com/news/2020-06-19/Study-finds-blood-type-affects-risk-of-severe-COVID-19-infection-RrOhLO697q/index.html), I have similar reservations about this study purporting to show that people with type 'A' blood carry a higher risk. Although some genes (including this?) may alter the ability of the virus to use its spikes to enter host cells, the conclusion currently seems somewhat premature and simplistic. The incidences of these simple blood grouping genes (and, consequently, of people with blood groups O, A, B and AB) varies with geography. We already know that a variety of socio-economic factors and career choices alter the likelihood of people contracting a severe Covid-19 infection. The role of genetics (if any) is much less clear. Although all information is potentially useful in the virus wars, there is little one can do about one's fundamental blood group. There is also a danger of scaring people with one blood group (A) and creating a blase attitude in another (O). 

Seeing the Changes 1462


In Bynea, the larva of the Cinnabar moth (Tyria jacobaeae) flaunted the poisons it extracted from the Ragwort.

Silence is Golden

The Covid-19 pandemic lockdown has substantially reduced the hum of noise from human activity and this appears to provided opportunities for many areas of science (https://www.theguardian.com/science/2020/jun/20/why-lockdown-silence-was-golden-for-science). It's not only that one can now hear nature, encapsulated in bird song. The lack of human noise has also provided opportunities for psychologists who want to measure the stress generated in our cities by the unrelenting hum (or even to understand why some people miss the sounds). Seismologists can also get a clear look at minor vibrations without their being masked by human activity. Hopefully, however, this will be a short-lasting opportunity.

Single Use Plastics Bounce Back?

Who would have thought that (reportedly) some plastic product manufacturers are using the Covid-19 pandemic to argue against current bans on single use containers (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jun/22/reusable-containers-safe-during-covid-19-pandemic-say-experts)? I hope that the counter from 'experts' that reusable containers are safe for use at this time will carry the day. There is enough extra plastic in the discarded Personal Protective Equipment (washing up on a beach near you), without going back to using disposable coffee containers, straws and plastic eating utensils.

Seeing the Changes 1470

Traveller's joy ( Clematis vitalba ) in flower in Loughor.