The Daily Cred

"And give us this day, our daily cred..." A blog about science, humans and other animals and how we fit together in this crazy world

Location: London, United Kingdom

06 July 2006

Protection for monarch butterflies

An inspiring, if somewhat toothless, plan to protect the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) across three North American countries. Great to see protection being extended to invertebrates, often overlooked in popular and political conservation consciousness. The annual monarch migration is spectacular.

Oceans are getting more acid

In the global debate about carbon emissions and global warming, it's often assumed that if the link between emissions and warming can be disproved then we are free to emit as much carbon dioxide as we like.

Not so. A clear and undeniable link exists between carbon emissions and ocean acidification - the process that lowers the pH of the world's oceans as they absorb more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This has devastating effects for marine ecosystems and, by implication, our ability to feed ourselves.

05 July 2006

More on the whaling debate

I was glad to see that someone shares the views I expressed in an earlier post about the recent meeting of the IWC.

For me, the biggest concern I have about whaling is a larger worry about the state of the world's oceans generally. Fish stocks around the globe are in danger of collapse, and the oceans represent a great, unregulated plundering ground.

I would favour cautious, regulated whaling if it were to help feed the world's population, but I think cautious regulation is a tall order.

Saltmarshes for Wallasea

Wallasea in Essex gets converted into a saltmarsh to replace habitats lost to developments. Great to see DEFRA doing something about the problem, but I wonder whether this would have happened had the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds not taken the government to court over its decision to develop a protected area.

The space race

Discovery takes off amid 4th July fanfare in the US. But meanwhile, other (and possibly more useful?) NASA projects flounder due to budget cuts and more, shall we say, pretentious priorities...

Thoughts on the coral question

Florida's coral reefs are in poor shape, reports Reuters, but in that respect they are no different to other reefs across the world.

I used to think that environmentalism had such a relatively poor following in the US because of that country's size: it's easy to ignore the effects of your own activities like carbon emissions when your country is so large that those effects are barely noticeable. But when you consider that Florida's reefs are the only ones of their kind in North America, it's just astounding that nothing more is being done to protect them.

04 July 2006

Whales protected from US Navy Sonar

I've long been concerned about the effects of sonar on cetaceans (and indeed, all other sea life). Here's a small victory against needless employment of high-power sonar, but as with all things military we know where the US' priorities are.

No fish, no brainfood

George Monbiot at the Guardian writes a very interesting piece asking whether the steadily collapsing global fisheries means an end to our supply of omega-3 fatty acids and, by implication, a "dumbing down" of the species. Some promising research indicates other possible sources of this valuable oil, but hopefully that should not divert our attention from the urgent need to conserve our fish stocks.

More bird worries

The dodo, an almost universal posterchild for anthropogenic extinctions, may not have been destroyed by man as previously thought.

On the other hand, bird extinction rates are now four times higher than previous estimates.

New weapons against malaria

The antihistamine astemizole has been shown to be effective in destroying the malaria parasite Plasmodium. What's more, the drug is no longer under patent and can therefore be manufactured cheaply.

Meanwhile, a team of researchers appear to have found the component of human body odour which attracts or repels mosquitoes. Reuters reports that they are currently working on a formulation that they can market.

Here we have two new and exciting prophylactics against malaria, an often-overlooked disease that kills up to 1 million people each year. It's a pity that the cheaper option is likely to be the drug rather than the repellant - it'll only be a matter of time before we start seeing resistance to the new medication.

03 July 2006

Riding the alternative energy wave... minus surfboards

Oh dear. A plan to utilise wave energy off the Cornish coast runs into opposition... from surfers.

John Baxendale, a chartered physicist and engineer who runs a surf forecasting agency, said it could ruin the coastline's renowned surfing. He told BBC News: "It is fairly obvious to me that any barrage of energy extraction would create a wave shadow because it would remove the energy from the surf.

"It will not just affect the height, it will also affect the quality of the surf.

"Surfers voting for this are like turkeys voting for Christmas."

This seems to epitomise a malaise we have in the UK toward alternative energy sources. We all agree action has to be taken on carbon emissions, but no one wants nuclear (especially because the government refuses to rule that option out, and quite rightly, too). Renewables are great, except for the NIMBY brigade (Not In My Back Yard). Wind farms are great, but look unsightly and no one can agree on whether they affect bird life.

Well, as the saying goes, there's no such thing as a free lunch. We've plundered the environment for our endless thirst for energy too long - now it's time we start paying. If a few surfers lose out, so be it.

Diplomats in Illegal Wildlife trade

A worrying story from New Scientist about those involved in illegal wildlife trading under cover of diplomatic immunity. The man in question was a UN peacekeeper smuggling a chimp out of Sierra Leone, and had to be let go - with the chimp.

Clearly, diplomatic immunity is not (or should not be) absolute.

Climate change: for the birds? Well, some of them

Long-distance migratory birds are adjusting their migration patterns to accommodate climate change. But it's not all good news, as changes in temperature are negatively affecting the food supplies of many species, especially sea birds.

Humans have long had an affinity for birds - perhaps it's their ability to fly that captures our imagination and therefore our hearts. Hopefully when we take note of the effects of climate change on their populations it will spur us into further action, but will that be too late?

Meanwhile, a reversal of fortune for the song thrush, as reported by the Times.

A near miss

A near armageddon moment at 04h44 GMT today when asteroid 2004 XP14 missed earth by a paltry 432,709 km. Okay, well it was close in celestial terms - around 1.1 times the distance between the earth and the moon.

The asteroid was first noticed by the LINEAR (Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research) project, a research group funded by the US Air Force and NASA.

Could it be the first time Hollywood tells the scientists "I told you so"?

Meanwhile, the Discovery Shuttle is delayed again by bad weather.

30 June 2006

Gazelles shrink heart, liver and keep their cool

Sand gazelles (Gazella subgutturosa) employ a wide variety of physiological mechanisms - including, incredibly, shrinking their internal organs enabling them to breathe less - in order to reduce water loss in their arid habitat, according to a new study reported by Science.

Ants watch their step to find their way

Ants, it turns out, use a pedometer-like system to measure distances and find their way home. The elegant experiments were conducted by Harald Wolf at the University of Ulm, Germany.

Wolf says that the findings show that ants have an internal system that somehow keeps track of now many the steps they have taken, though he is quick to point out that the insects probably cannot "count" as such.

Well, can you imagine counting the steps of six legs, let alone two?

Lost connection with Mother Earth

Meanwhile, also over at the beeb ecologist Stephen Harding waxes lyrical about the Gaia hypothesis and our lost connection to Mother Earth which is responsible for our wanton destruction of the environment.

While I'm sympathetic to the cause, I feel talk like this alienates the layperson from environmentalism. I entertained the Gaia hypothesis when I first learned of it all those years ago, but it's less science and more pot-smoking pseudopaganism than my cerebrum usually deals with. Yes, people have lost their emotional connection with nature (if it ever existed at all), but in this age of internet, iPod and playstation I wonder just how far appealing to people's emotions will get the greens.

What's more, this sort of paganism will never win over a society that is becoming more conservative and reactionary, more religious and more anti-science.

Surely a cold, hard analysis of our human contingency is the best argument: regardless of what we think or feel about the environment, or what supernatural forces we may believe will save us, we destroy it at our peril.

More hot air

It seems carbon cuts have also fallen prey to party politics in the UK with this report from the BBC that Blair wants to make further (and more toothless) emissions cuts. Labour is chasing David Cameron in a greener-than-thou contest, though I suspect this is all just electioneering on both of their parts, especially after Labour suffered defeats in several by-elections.

It seems to me that re-forestation programmes could be just as beneficial in tackling climate change, and certainly more cheaper and palatable to industry. Why is this not being looked at?

29 June 2006

Sex, spider-style

I feel like I've got OCBD (obsessive compulsive blogging disorder) today, but I had to include this fascinating post from Pharyngula on spider courtship and mating, an area of arachnology in which we are still fairly bereft of knowledge. Fascinating.

Pollution in Overdrive, says WaPo - and?

This from the Washington Post:

When it comes to greenhouse gases, U.S. drivers are getting more of the blame.

Americans represent 5 percent of the world's population but contribute 45 percent of the world's emission of carbon dioxide, the main pollutant that causes global warming, according to a report by the nonprofit group Environmental Defense.
With all due respect to our American friends, this is not big news. But it's encouraging to see that there are significant cracks in the Bush administration's resistance to discussing climate change, even if they do fall prey to partisan politics.

Anti-evolutionism and slavery: God says it's ok

There's an interesting debate going on over at The Panda's Thumb seeking to establish a link between the religious basis for slavery and anti-evolutionism.

I have my own theories on why people are resistant to the theory of evolution, and I think they mainly stem from people's deeper worldview rather than just how to interpret scriptures.

In his excellent book Straw Dogs, the philosopher John Gray argues that the inevitable conclusion of Darwinism is a rather nihilistic worldview. I only agree with him up to a point, but it's easy to see how this would offend both moderate and fundamentalist religious people. As biologists we have our own worldviews that take joy in the beauty and origins of the natural world, but I've yet to read any work of popular science that effectively reconciles people's need for meaning in their lives with natural selection. I can't help feeling everybody falls into one camp or the other.

Protection for Aleutian Islands

Science has the news that NOAA has agreed to set aside 950 000 square kilometres in Alaska and the Aleutian Islands as an area protected from bottom trawling. Very welcome - this disgusting fishing practice is wrecking what is left of our oceans.

Jennifer Washburn of the Alaska Groundfish Data Bank, which represents trawlers, says that the new proposal shouldn't harm the industry significantly. "A lot of the active fishing grounds have been active for the past 20 years," she says. "So it seems like if they haven't gone there yet, they're not going to be interested."

Well, there you go then. Environmentalists must take small victories when they can.

Tomatoes: latest tool in the hunt for HIV vaccine?

An interesting report from New Scientist about research involving genetically modified tomatoes to deliver vaccines for diseases such as HIV and hepatitis B or HBV (link requires subs).

But, as the report indicates, the 90 or so existing vaccines against HIV fail to induce effective immunity and the only advantages apparent to me here are in method of delivery. But, on the plus side, mice injected with the tomato-grown vaccine had substantial levels of antibodies in their mucosal surfaces, which is where the greatest level of protection against HIV infection would be needed.

This may represent a useful tool for a future HIV initiative, and may also offer a successful oral vaccine for HBV for poorer countries where intra-muscular vaccines pose a logistical problem.

28 June 2006

US Supreme Court to examine climate change

Is it too much to hope that, finally, someone in the upper echelons of the US Government is taking climate change seriously? The case is one between 12 US States and environmental groups (led by the State of Massachusetts), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which is being urged to regulate CO2 emissions from mobile sources (such as vehicles). It's not known why the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, but I'm sure the irony of the following will be lost on the anti-intellectuals of the Bush administration:

The EPA and the US Department of Justice, which is representing the EPA in the case, could not be reached for comment because severe flooding in Washington DC forced their offices to close on Monday.

Some answers in store for Bruno?

Sorry to harp on about Bruno, but I'm heartened to see that I'm not the only one not content to let this slip beneath the radar.

Baiji: China's unseen victim

The baiji, or Chinese river dolphin (Lipotes vexillifer) ranks among the most endangered mammals on earth, and is certainly the most endangered cetacean. The population is estimated at less than 100 individuals.

The threat? This animal lives in the Yangtze river, one of the most polluted waterways on Earth. Concreted river banks, collisions with ships and contaminated and depleted fish stocks on which it preys have brought the species to the brink of extinction. China's Three Gorges Dam project is just the latest in a long list of man-made factors playing against this species.

A number of new projects aim to breed the baiji captively for reintroduction:

"The long-term plan would be to re-introduce them to the Yangtze, but only when the prospects of them thriving there have risen."

But when would that be? China's leaders have repeatedly shown that they value economic growth and international prestige far more than preserving their environment. I recorded but have not yet had a chance to watch the third in the BBC 2's China documentary series that featured environmental concerns (aired last night). The effort we put into preserving the environment in the West seems dwarfed by China's insatiable appetite for the world's natural resources. Scary stuff.